EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Brussels is to hold an EU summit with atheists and freemasons in the autumn, inviting them to a political dialogue parallel to the annual summit the bloc holds with Europe's religious leaders.
While the EU is a secular body, the three European presidents, of the commission, parliament and EU Council, alongside two commissioners, on Monday met with 24 bishops, chief rabbis, and muftis as well as leaders from the Hindu and Sikh communities. The annual dialogue, which has taken place since 2005, is for the first time this year made legally obligatory under Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Under pressure from Belgium, which constitutionally protects and financially supports humanist organisations as well as churches, the EU has been forced to hold a mirror-image summit, but of atheists, scheduled for 15 October.
However, in a move that perplexed and annoyed humanist groups, the EU atheist summit will also welcome under the rubric of ‘non-religious groups', the Freemasons, the secretive fraternal organisation, according to commission spokeswoman Katharina von Schnurbein.
"I find it rather odd," David Pollock, president of the European Humanist Federation, told EUobserver. "Some of the Grand Lodges are secularist organisations, and strongly for separation of church and state, but they also retain all sorts of gobbledygook and myths such as the Great Architect of the Universe."
Emerging in the late 16th century in England and subsequently spread throughout the world, the Freemasons split in 1877 between the English-speaking lodges and their continental counterparts over the question of god. Anglophone Freemasons require that their members believe in a deity, while continental freemasons do not.
"Their public face is that they do charitable work and they do indeed engage in this, but there are also rituals involving blindfolded candidates with their trouser-legs rolled up during initiation," continued Mr Pollock.
"It's boys' games sort of a thing."
Mr Pollock told this website that humanists had opposed any inclusion of the ‘religion clause' in first the EU Constitutional Treaty and subsequently the Lisbon Treaty, arguing that "no one has any right to some special summit any more than any other type of organisation, and we should wait in line to speak to commissioners, to access at the highest level, like any other NGO, which is what churches are."
"Neither religious groups nor non-religious ones have any greater claim to taking up the time of commissioners."
"But sadly we lost that battle, and so with the atheist summit, at least we're being treated equally, although I'd rather if we were there along with the churches. Instead we're being bundled off with the Freemasons."
According to the commission's Ms von Schnurbein, Brussels views the Freemasons as a "community of conscience interconnected throughout Europe," and "a form of humanist organisation."
She dismissed concerns that while churches and atheist groups are free for anyone to join, membership in the Freemasons, a private organisation of men, with some separate Grand Lodges for women, is by invitation only and requires initiation fees and an annual subscription.
The EUobserver attempted to speak with the United Grand Lodge of England, the oldest Grand Lodge of masons in the world, regarding this development but without success.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has had its nose put out at the annual EU summit with religious leaders by the presence for the first time this year of Hindus and Sikhs.
According to La Croix, the French Roman Catholic daily, the church, happy to embrace an ecumenism of the great monotheistic faiths at the EU level, fears that the enlargement of the meeting to include such groups beyond those "more anchored across the whole of the continent," suggests the EU is being "religiously correct".
According to a spokesman for President Van Rompuy, next year the meeting could include a Buddhist.
Beyond the annual summit, religious leaders interpret Article 17, which commits the EU to holding "an open, transparent and regular dialogue with… churches and non-confessional and philosophical organisations", as meaning regular meetings with senior civil servants, not just on grand themes such as Monday's topic of the battle against poverty, but on more concrete legislative measures dealing with climate change, education, immigration, social services and labour laws.
In the future, they hope to have similar relations with EU agencies, notably the Fundamental Rights Agency, as well as with the bloc's new diplomatic corps, the External Action Service.